Anti-terrorism funding questioned

Chasing Ghosts – The Policing of Terrorism by John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, Oxford University Press

It takes some guts to write a book questioning the funding of anti-terrorist activities when at any moment a terrorist bomb could kill dozens of people.

But that's what academics John Mueller and Mark Stewart have done in producing Chasing Ghosts, a book that documents actual attacks in the United States and asks whether the trillion dollars spent since 2001 to counter the problem can be justified.

In Australia, a Senate committee is currently looking at the question of whether airport and aviation security in this country is adequate. As always, the terms of reference carry the implication that more money should be spent. Among other things, they ask whether further measures ought to be taken to enhance airport security and the safety of the travelling public. The committee is not asked whether we're getting value for money from our spending, or whether there are negative consequences from the measures we are taking. If it were to look at such matters, the committee might find it worthwhile examining an earlier paper by Mueller and Stewart, which found that the expensive body scanners airports are wont to use are of questionable value.

The committee might also consider whether the security check delays we all experience cause short-hop travellers, such as those going from Canberra to Sydney, to drive rather than fly, thus increasing their chances of being killed.

The US political scientist, Mueller, and the Australian civil engineer, Stewart, are most interested in these difficult probability questions. They document the Islamic terrorism plots targeting the United States since September 11, 2001, and the growth in the counter-terrorism industry. They then apply cost/benefit and risk analysis to see if the authorities are getting it right.


Contrary to popular opinion, governments do place a value on human life. They do it all the time in their funding of fire or flood mitigation, or whether or not to remove a level crossing, improve a dangerous road, build a stronger bridge, increase the number of security personnel at railway stations, or allocate more police to respond to incidents of domestic violence.

After September 11 the fear of terrorism generated a huge response in the United States. By 2009 some 1074 US federal government organisations and almost 2000 private companies were devoted to tackling the problem.

Similarly in Australia, there was a massive boost in the funding of counter-terrorism and intelligence agencies.

But as Mueller and Stewart point out, the question is not, "Are we safer as a result?" but "How much are we willing to pay for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?"

You might at this point react with horror at the claim that the probabilities are extremely low. But the authors do the calculation and present the figures. They say the chance of an American being killed by a terrorist is one in 4 million and that, outside of war zones, the number of people killed annually by terrorists worldwide is only a few hundred. (This book was finalised before the November 2015 Paris attacks which killed 130 people, the downing of the Russian airliner, the latest Turkish bombings and this week's Jakarta terrorist attack.)

After examining terrorism cases in the United States, they also make the interesting observation that contrary to popular opinion, (and even some supposedly expert opinion), terrorists are not evil geniuses, or particularly clever or crafty. In actual trials and cases, the words typically used to describe the perpetrators are: incompetent, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, inadequate, unorganised, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational and foolish. And in just about all the cases where the FBI had an operative infiltrate the plot the terrorists were gullible.

Polls show that 34 per cent of Americans believe in ghosts and that the number increases to 49 per cent if the question is expanded to: "Do you believe in ghosts or that the spirits of dead people can come back in certain situations?"

The authors get their title from the massive terrorist "ghost-chasing" operation the FBI is engaged in.  US government agencies follow up 5000 terrorist tips a day. Of those that have at least some basis, the vast majority lead only to trivial or at most aspirational activities.

If you believe in ghosts, but have never seen one, the authors say that there are two possible explanations: one, you're not looking hard enough; or two the ghosts are diabolically clever at hiding. 

Another possibility is that they don't exist.

Terrorists clearly do exist, but in what numbers and with what impact domestically?

Since 9/11, according to the authors, the total number of people killed by terrorists in the United States is 19, or two a year. Some might argue that the number is low because of counter-terrorism measures. But defenders of the increased spending would have to explain why there were so few attacks in the West in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, before the enhanced homeland security measure were put in place.

It should be made clear that Mueller and Stewart are not suggesting that nothing should be spent on counter-terrorism. They're looking for the optimal level, and they calculate, for example, that FBI counter-terrorism funding should be of the order of $1.2 billion, or about the same amount as in 2003, rather than the $3 billion it was in 2014.

Massive amounts of data are now collected, with the National Security Agency leading the charge. Privacy is one concern, but there is also the question of effectiveness.

NSA representatives have claimed that their data has helped disrupt terrorist threats. But when pressed for details they have provided few concrete examples.

Not only that, there is a danger that too much data can swamp investigators, with one FBI agent challenging the NSA, "You know how much time it takes to chase 99 pieces of bullshit?"  

The lay reader might find some of the calculations and tables difficult to follow, while accepting that they are essential to the case being presented. There is also some repetition of examples and argument, but overall this book makes a major contribution to rational debate and the development of intelligent policy.

Every politician should read it.